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Rated: E · Short Story · Sci-fi · #2274562
Hey y'all, I wrote this several years ago but I figured I'd finally give you an update.
The Gingerbread Men

Derick Josephson stumbled out the door of his mansion carrying a large pair of trimmers, a little shovel, a watering can, a rake, and a broom. Derick was in his late 40's, with a large nose and a protruding forehead. He was not handsome. He took a deep breath of fresh air. It didn't smell great -- like smog and baked concrete --, but it felt so good to be outside again. This was the first time in months that he deemed it safe, and at 118? Fahrenheit, it was still quite hot. As the door automatically slid closed behind him, he was already beginning to sweat. Derick walked over to his garden, dropping his load on the dirt. He stared aghast at what awaited him. His once proud bushes had more dead branches than live ones. Wilted yellow leaves clung to their last hope of life. Some actually looked burnt. Looking at his flower bed, Derick saw plenty of twigs and thorns, but no flowers. The grass was brown where it remained. This was going to be a lot of work. But that was ok, because Derick liked to work. He felt like he was doing something; making the world a little better. It was better than watching the television all day, or using the AVC, or eating just for the fun of it, or having yet another glass of champagne, or...what did they do all day? Was that all? Maybe they would go on a stroll through their empty houses, or take a solitary swim in their private pools. It was all so pointless. Derick picked up his trimmers and started removing the dead branches off a bush. It was like this every year. After the long summer, Derick returned outside to fix everything the harsh Antarctican summer ruined. He labored in his mansion garden on the empty street. After he was done with his garden, he worked in someone else's garden. No one else did what he did. No one else braved the heat to actually try to improve the world. The outside of the mansions weren't even painted. Why bother? No one ever saw the outsides. Derick started breaking up the dirt in the flower bed with his shovel. The heat had caused it to dry and harden, but the shovel was doing a good job. He got down on his knees and tumbled the warm crumbly dirt through his fingers. The earthy smell drifted up to his nostrils, and he breathed in deeply. This was what he had waited months for.

Sweat streamed down his face and his shirt clung to his body. The corners of his eyes stung from the salty perspiration. Though hot, it was not very sunny. Derick looked up at the overcast sky and reminded himself that it was smog, not clouds that contributed to the darkness of the neighborhood. A breeze blew dust across the abandoned street. Gray buildings and the near lack of trees completed the look of desolation. Oh, how Derick wished for someone to share the scene with. If he just had a friend, the landscape wouldn't be so dreary. Yet, he knew no one else shared his sentiment. He'd talked about it before, through the AVC. They'd just laughed at him.

"Go outside? Ha! Why go outside when we have everything we need inside? Why would I leave the air-conditioned paradise of my own home?"

They didn't know what they were missing. They'd never been outside. They'd never smelt the dark soil or felt Nature's gentle caress on the breeze that blew through the street. No, it wasn't the garden of Eden; but for Derick, it was enough. At least he had a purpose. At the end of the period of relative coolness, Derick had made his neighborhood a little better, a little closer to Eden.

Of course, he had to start over again every year. Now that Derick thought about it, he never did make progress year to year. But that was ok...it was ok. It could be worse, surely. At least The Bureau let him go outside. It wasn't their fault that global warming had increased so as to melt all of Antarctica. They'd done the best they could under the circumstances. Without the Bureau, they'd all be dead. Burnt to a crisp. Gingerbread men who'd been left in the oven too long and laid out on the baked stone to crumble to dust. Then blown through the streets by Nature's gentle caress.

Derick liked the Bureau. The Bureau took care of them. It gave them luxuries; every pleasure they could ever want. They never had to work; they could just sleep, and eat, and play. There were no rules, no restrictions. The Bureau gave absolute liberty and freedom to its people. Derick could do anything he wanted. Derick liked the Bureau.

Derick returned to his mansion. It was earlier than he usually returned, but he yearned for the pleasures of the indoors. It was too hot outside. He had stopped sweating, his mouth was dry, and his skin was clammy. As he got up from the dirt, he almost lost his balance from a dizzy spell. He gathered up his tools with weak arms and made his way to the door. The door slid open with a satisfying shiink. Cool air rushed out. Derick stepped into heaven and reveled in the beauty of air conditioning. He set the despised implements of labor on the hardwood floor and left them behind as he made his way to the kitchen table. A rolling robot rushed to put the tools away. An icy glass of water waited for him on the table, as always. Derick sank into the plastic chair, which immediately conformed to his seating position. He took a long draught of water, and his spirits began to rise as he absorbed the luxury around him. Here, inside, he was happy. That was what mattered. Everyone was happy. Not only was everyone happy, but they all lived in luxury. There was no social hierarchy anymore, no upper or lower class. Infinite wealth was available to the entire population. There were no starving children in Africa, no underpaid factory workers, no disease-infested slums. It was perfect.

Of course, the population was much smaller than what it had been in the years before. It had to be. 10 billion people could not all be rich.

Neat rows of gingerbread men.


Derick could not think about it. He just had to block it out. It never happened. No one else remembered -- why did Derick have to?

Today was a bad day. Most of the time, Derick had no trouble working all day outside. It wasn't always this struggle inside him.

Derick just needed to stop thinking, something to distract him, to calm him. He walked upstairs over to the Audio-Visual Communicator. It occupied an entire room. The wall opposite him was an enormous screen, although it didn't look like a screen when it was on. It seemed as if you were standing right next to the person you called.

Everyone else just left the AVC on all the time, in fact, it was not made to turn off at all. Derick, though, had found the wire that powered the concealed technology in his wall and cut it. He had installed a switch himself so that he could have some privacy.

When Derick flicked the switch, the screen disappeared. Two people sat in front of him, chatting. They looked as if they were in the same room as him, just a couple feet away.

"Oh, hey, Derick! I haven't seen you all day." said the man.

"Yeah, you always have your AVC off. Makes us wonder what you're up to that you don't want us knowing about." said the woman playfully.

"You know, the AVC will keep you looking good even if you're hungover. Don't worry about that." said the man again.

"Hey, guys! Yeah, I just slept in late." Derick lied.

The man laughed. "Well, I love sleeping as much as anyone."

"Maybe not as much as Derick."

The woman tossed a lock of her long, dark hair over her shoulder. She was a very pretty woman at the prime of her life, with brilliant blue eyes and a well-meaning smile.

Derick's other friend, Roger, was tall and had a handsome rugged appearance. His well-defined jaw framed his chiseled face, and his skin was brown with tan.

Derick would much rather talk to them in person, but no one did that anymore. This was the only other choice, and, Derick admitted, it really wasn't that different from if they were actually in his house. He just couldn't touch them. Human interaction was important to Derick, even if he turned the AVC off sometimes, and didn't use the appearance-altering features of the technology. They were his friends, for what it was worth. Most of their conversations were pretty shallow; he couldn't talk to them about anything that really mattered. They were happy in their big houses. But even this was way better than nothing. Derick felt his stress slowly melt away and he was happy.

Derick tried to find something that they would like to talk about.

"Have you guys seen that new movie?" He didn't even know what movie he was talking about, but they would.

"YESSS! It was so good! I--"

Suddenly the lady's face mutated into an expression of absolute pain and suffering.

"I remember..." She gasped and fell silent.

The man hadn't even noticed, but was still talking about the movie, looking towards Derick. The whole thing had only lasted a few seconds, and now the lady's face looked completely normal again.

Interrupting his other friend, Derick directed a question towards the lady.

"Minerva...are you okay?"

"Yeah, why? Didn't you like the movie?"

"It just seemed for a moment...never mind." Derick continued listening to the conversation, and it was the same vapid dialogue it always was. Soon though, Minerva said something a bit out of the ordinary.

"You know, Derick, I think you actually had a good idea turning your screen off. See you guys later." She vanishes from the room.

Saying goodbye to his friend, Derick did the same soon afterwards.

Something was wrong. Not only the strange behavior, but Minerva shouldn't be able to turn off her screen like that. Derick thought about the heat outside that he had just escaped. He wasn't thrilled about going back out there. But if something was actually wrong...

He made his way through the modern interior of his house and stepped through the door. Once again he heard the shiink sound behind him and felt the oppressive heat and desiccation. He looked out onto the desolate piece of gray road and the mansions looming out from either side. He inhaled an arid breath and he felt his nostrils dry out as he coughed at the dust. He wrapped a damp cloth over his mouth and nose and continued on, squinting against the gritty wind. It was the very next house over, but that was in fact a fair distance away because of the size of Derick's mansion.

Browns and greys everywhere. A little patch of yellow here and there. He reached the end of the enormous concrete block that was his house and the beginning of the enormous concrete block that was Minerva's house. Between the two, there was a brown picket fence (it had once been white), bent, crooked and crumbling against the hard ground. Things like that don't last long when they aren't needed. But it had once been proud. The mansion was strong, but lonely inside. He found the door, steel on a background of concrete. Locked, impenetrable. Derick banged on it with his fists. He yelled and his voice echoed across the empty street. He looked across the broad tall sides of the building. No windows.


Where the door was, there was now a dark gap. He stepped inside the gloom and was wrapped in cold, stale air.


Darkness surrounded Derick. He turned around and banged on the door. Searched for a button. Nothing.

His eyes adjusted and he perceived a faint blue light emanating beyond the turn of what he now saw was a corridor. He slowly walked towards it. All he could hear was his own footsteps on the marble floor. The dim light was coming from overhead. It was the Audio-Visual Communication center. It looked just like his own.

Lying on the floor in front of it was Minerva -- a cold corpse. No, not Minerva. Derick looked closer and saw that this woman was much, much older than Minerva ever looked. And then he remembered the powerful capabilities of the AVC to change one's appearance.

He kneeled. There was no evidence on the body of any certain cause of death, though she was certainly dead. The formerly dim light now appeared as the sinister light of an inferno, forming sharp shadows in the creases of her clothes and the hollows in her cheeks. He looked around. Of course, there was no one.

He called anyway, out of some human instinct, "Help!" His voice seemed so loud and jarring in that lonely place of sorrow. He waited in the silence. The peace that he had searched for earlier was completely gone. Instead, it was replaced by shock, a confusing jumble of thoughts and emotions that he couldn't understand. The Bureau promised that no one would ever die. Not after...the gingerbread men.

This time he let the memories come, garish, painful, nauseating. It all rushed before his eyes, a flood of fear.

He was 6 years old. School ended early. He was led to a daycare center with the other kids by a Bureau officer. They walked in a single column line through rows and rows of...gingerbread men. Dead men and women, stiff as boards, laid out on the streets, the fields, for as far as the eye could see.

There was only one path between the bodies, and it was this path the children took. He never saw his parents, but he knew they were there somewhere. Because everyone was killed. Gassed in their homes and workplaces and then left to bake in the sun. The schools alone were spared. The children. And in the center, they told them that they were lucky. That only about half the schools were spared. They told them that they should be grateful and that what they did was necessary. They used words that Derick didn't understand back then, like "overpopulation" and "global warming". Derick understood the words now, but he still didn't understand why.

They made promises. And this Derick at least partially understood. The Bureau told the children that they would all be rich, that they could have anything, do anything they wanted. And that no one would die ever again.

And now Derick was alone in somebody else's house, kneeling on the floor next to a corpse. He yelled for help once again, but to no avail. Somehow, Minerva's AVC was off. Derick searched around the dim room for a switch or something, but found nothing. The room was bare and minimalistic and contained only an office chair.

Suddenly, the wall shone bright white, a burst of light that illuminated the entire room. Derick was standing in a virtual expanse of whites and greys. The AVC was on. He found the office chair and sat down. In front of him, hovering in the air were the words, "Roger is calling." He appeared, leaning back against his own office chair and sipping a drink from a straw.

"Roger. Something is wrong. Minerva is dead."

"I know." He sipped his drink.

"How do you know?! It just happened. We need help. I'm in her house right now."

"Yeah, I thought so too. Have you seen the weather channel today?"

"Roger, I was outside just a few moments ago."

"Yeah, good thing The Bureau is here to keep us safe. How's the shrimp?"

Derick wasn't eating any shrimp. Angry now, he said, "Our friend is dead, and you don't even care!"

"Oh, it's delicious, thanks. Hey Minerva, what was it you were saying about your robot earlier?"

Derick was stunned. Roger thought he was talking to Minerva. Was he maybe just confused from the death, in denial maybe? And then he remembered how after Minerva's strange behavior on the AVC, she had continued to look and talk normally. Was it possible...?

Derick tried to interrupt Roger, but he kept talking. "Roger. I am Derick. Minerva is dead. Tell me if you can hear me."

Roger just kept saying something about how his robot was better than Minerva's.

Derick stood up violently from his chair and shouted at his virtual friend.

"Just please say something that makes sense!" Tears fell involuntarily from his eyes.

"Hey...what's wrong? Fine, your robot is just as obedient."

Derick turned around and left the AVC room and Minerva lying on the floor. The door opened automatically this time, and he was outside again. The tears evaporated from his cheeks.

He looked around, desperately, searching for something. He didn't know what. All he saw was more unpainted concrete buildings and crumbling streets. He couldn't see very far because the buildings were so large. Who knew how many of those buildings were empty, how many people the Bureau had let die. Immediately after he thought that, he tried to push it back, rejecting the thought. The Bureau...the Bureau wouldn't let people die. But then it rose to the surface again, and hesitantly, fearfully, he let it stay. I hate the Bureau. Anger welled up inside him as he thought of Minerva, and further back in his mind, something worse. He yelled then, a scream of pure despair, of anguish, as loud as he could, unitelligible, no words, just emotion -- that which he had denied himself all these years. It felt wrong and it was terrifying even as it was freeing. The scream inside his head that told him no was still louder than the one that went out into the dust.

Nothing happened. No response came.

Suddenly, the fear grew too great and he went back to Minerva's door, pressing his fingers against it, trying to open it. No use. He huddled near it, underneath the shade of the overhang, peering out into the street. He waited.

Sweat ran down the sides of his face and dried there. Thirst consumed him. He began to want someone to come, he longed for it. Tired of waiting. He was still scared, but more than that he wanted to see another person, even if that person would punish him. He thought please come, but was unwilling to make another sound.

Time passed, and still no one came. There was no change.

He walked home then, forcing himself to search around him for any movement, any sign of life. Just dust blowing. The synthetic material of his stylish footwear was beginning to melt on the hot asphalt. It wasn't made for the outdoors.

He stepped inside.

Years later, the leader of the Bureau is called to show Derick the underground hydroponic system and the enclosed pens with animals that supply food for the meager population. He looked too fragile to be in control of everything. The second Derick sees him, his face contorts and he shouts,

"You! You made the gingerbread men! You killed my parents! You killed everyone."

"Yeah, so what? All that means is that you and everyone else can live in mansions and have everything you want."

"It doesn’t matter. Killing is wrong, and you know that."

"Who told you that? The Bureau and I talked it over and we all agreed it was the right thing to do. How was it wrong if we all agreed it was right?"

Derick’s rage had settled into a calmer, brewing anger. He huddled into himself.

"It just is."

"Ahh, and does anyone else agree with you?" The man looked too comfortable.

"The gingerbread men do.”

"Well then, why don't we ask them?"

Derick punched the frail man in the face. He fell down on the ground and Derick punched him again and started choking him. But then he stops and looks at the bloody face of the man. Derick cries.

The man is in pain, but somehow he still seems at ease when he says,

"Derick. Those people that I killed do not care that they are dead. They have no thoughts or feelings now. But they did when they were alive and I can tell you their life was horrible. They got sick. They were hungry. You don't know what that is - hunger. But it hurts."

"Hit me in the face. Like I hit you. I want to feel this pain."

"You have already felt pain. Just a different kind. Because you chose not to forget. You should have. You would have been happier. Look at that cow. He munches his artificial grass and he is happy. It does not care about anything except the grass. He is happy because he wants nothing more. And because he can't think about anything more. That is how everyone should be. That is how Roger is. That is how Minerva was."

Hours of film-viewing and shrimp-eating flicked through Derick's mind. He remembered the conversations they'd had - they were all nearly identical. And then he remembered Minerva's last words.

"No. You're wrong. Minerva remembered what you did. She remembered the gingerbread men."

A change came across Derick’s face. The man realized and he did not look at ease anymore. Derick replaced his hands on the man’s throat and pressed. He had no skill in this, no technique. It was a pure expression of emotion as he kneaded the soft baggy flesh into the ground. The man did not make a sound.

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